Believe me, I didn’t fly all the way to Cannes just to see The Great Gatsby which already opened in the States last Friday. I was actually going to skip it and instead pour as much of my energy as possible into films that haven’t been seen yet, but I hadn’t had time to see it before I left and, as the first press screening of my first Cannes Film Festival, it seemed like a good opportunity to get my feet wet while figuring out the ins and outs of navigating this crazy place. Unfortunately, Gatsby is pretty much a disaster from the opening frames – it’s not even an interesting misfire – and I was ready to bolt within the first 15 or 20 minutes. I just kept thinking of all the dozens of different things I could be doing instead and they all sounded more appealing than this nice looking but dull and gutless stroll through the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel.
And it’s not because Luhrmann has the ego to screw with a masterpiece. He did it before with Romeo + Juliet and it worked wonderfully. If anything, the problem here is that he didn’t go far enough. There’s some exuberance in the party set-pieces and he’s obviously amused working in 3D, but the film is surprisingly conservative. Basically, Luhrmann chickened out and the result isn’t even a match for the underwhelming (but better than its reputation) Robert Redford adaptation from the 1970s.
I’m not even sure Luhrmann really even gets the novel – at least he didn’t take from it any of the same things I did. For me, the center of it is this deep melancholy; a sense that the Roaring ’20s are winding down and starting to rot from the inside. Everyone is celebrating, but no one is having any fun. Luhrmann excels at showing us the bacchanalia (lovingly rendered in frequently clever and beautiful but utterly superfluous 3D), but he only gets the impending doom about half right and not even half right.
One of the interesting things about the novel is that that Fitzgerald was writing 4 or 5 years before the crash of ’29, but he wrote as if he knows it was coming. He knew the party was unsustainable. Luhrmann has the benefit of hindsight and he misfires in giving the same hindsight to narrator and audience surrogate Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Enough I think has been written about the unfortunate bookends to the film that feature Carraway in a sanitarium at some point in the future writing out Gatsby as therapy by way of memoir. Suffice it to say it’s a bush league concept for a novel that deserves so much more and it actually plays out more woodenly than it sounds. Poor Maguire is literally reduced to voice-over narrating what basically amount to Cliff’s Notes of the novel for people too stupid to pick up on the subtext and nuance of what’s happening on screen. Many times, he’s just repeating what has just happened or anticipating what’s to come. I’m generally a fan of voice over in adaptations. It works brilliantly in Barry Lyndon, the Coens’ True Grit and lots of other films because it’s a compact way of giving you some of the literary flavor and tone of a novel. In Luhrmann’s unsubtle hands, however, it’s deadly.
The film starts to sparkle a little bit very late in the story when they’ve all ventured into the city to drink at the Plaza Hotel on a sweltering day and Gatsby and Buchanan engage in a little verbal sword play while laying out the novel’s themes of class resentment and entitlement, but it’s too little too late. Worse, Carey Mulligan is not a Daisy that would inspire such fights. She’s pretty and she’s a fine actress, but she’s not someone men would build castles for. She’s too intellectual for a character who is crafty, but more of a force of nature – a woman who does not have too much going on between the ears and so is a perfect vessel for men to project on to her whatever it is they want her to be. Mulligan is too sensitive and thoughtful and delicate.
Instead of making a relatively straight forward period piece, I think Gatsby might’ve worked better if Luhrmann had updated it in a similar way to Romeo + Juliet. Set it on Wall Street and keep Fitzgerald’s language, but bump the story up to the years leading up to the most recent crash and then stylize the hell out of it. It’s the connection Luhrmann obviously wants the audience to make anyway, so just go for it. Alas, after Australia bombed, the director seems to have lost his nerve.